As every Christian family strives to live out its faith, it must face a fundamental choice: how to reconcile the demands family life and Church life, of work and play and education and social engagements, and commitment to worship, fellowship and the giving our time, talents and finances to the parish?
The problem lies in understanding what we mean by “church” and “family.” When we speak of “church,” we tend to think of parish-related activities: attending a service, going to a parish party, helping with a fundraiser. Because these events make demands on our time and personal resources, they often come into conflict with we think of as “non-Church” or “family” commitments: swimming lessons, supper with friends, an extra shift at work. As a result, church and family often become an either/or scenario, a choice in which one can be enjoyed only at the expense of the other.
I would suggest that this dilemma would not exist if we allowed ourselves a more meaningful definition of “church.” According to the Orthodox understanding, “church” does not refer only to events revolving around the parish, but rather to the continuing presence of Christ in all human life through the Holy Spirit.
The Incarnation was God’s entry into the world of first century Palestine. By sending His Holy Spirit—His breath, His divine life—upon His apostles and all those baptized in His Name, Jesus has made it possible for God’s Presence to penetrate every human life, in all places and throughout all time. Because of Pentecost, every sphere of human existence—working and playing, learning and growing, birth and dying, marrying and child-bearing—could become an ark in which God dwelt and make Himself known. In short, all human life acquired the potential to become Church.
As Orthodox Christians, therefore, we cannot separate “church life” from “family life,” because everything we are and do is called to shine with the life of the Church, which is the continuing Presence of God in history. The formal dimension to the Church—its tradition of worship, fellowship and stewardship—cannot be disconnected from, let alone opposed to, everything else we do. Rather, we must learn to see Church tradition as a spiritual framework within which God reveals the potential for all our activities to become Church: repositories of God’s Presence, daily icons of the Incarnation.
What does this mean for us? Firstly, any family that is dedicated to serving Christ in the Orthodox Church must strive to conduct its activities within a framework of Church tradition. On a basic level, these means planning our professional, social and educational events around the cycle of the Church year, including daily services and weekly reception of the Eucharist, the twelve Great Feasts, Lent and Pascha. Times of fellowship and stewardship commitments should stand on at least an equal footing with other financial and time commitments. Fasting periods should become a regular part of our family menu-planning, as much as we are able. Reading Scripture and spiritual literature, along with personal prayer, should find a regular place in our daily routines. Only with this framework in place can our lives begin to fulfill their God-bearing potential to become Church.
While tradition is a framework for our lives, it alone cannot form the whole picture. At its heart, the liturgy calls us to “commend ourselves, each other and all our lives unto Christ our God.” While we need to sing those words on a weekly basis, we also need daily opportunities outside of liturgy to accomplish the challenge of our song. We need to establish and cherish those informal, non-liturgical times as God-given arenas in which service to our family can itself become a churchly act, our personal liturgy.
How then can we strike a balance between participating the formal dimension of the Church—its tradition—and serving the liturgy of our lives? In a monastery, the schedule of monks and nuns is determined for each member by the common rule. This rule allows both for liturgical activity and for intervening times when monks can simply live out their vocation of brotherly love in work and quiet solitude.
In a parish, by contrast, the schedule will vary depending on the needs of each family, which must evolve its own “rule” within the larger boundaries of Church tradition. A good starting-point is to consult with your parish priest to determine what level of formal Church commitment will realistically and reasonably work in your own situation, depending on your circumstances and your stage of life.
In the end, the path of the spiritual life is a matter of balance, of all things finding their proper place in their proper proportions. The debate between family and church is not really a debate at all, a question of either/or. Rather, it is like the relationship of the flower to the soil. Without the rich soil of tradition, the flower of family will wither into worldliness. But if the flower of family is somehow unable to grow, then we must conclude that the soil of tradition is barren, religion for the sake of religion. In isolation, the frame of prayer, fasting and asceticism is empty, but without that framework we can have no real sense that our life is more than end in itself, an image of God’s life, an icon of His Kingdom.